Coming Up For Air

Part I


George Orwell

DO you know the road I live in—Ellesmere Road, West Bletchley? Even if you don’t, you know fifty others exactly like it.

You know how these streets fester all over the inner-outer suburbs. Always the same. Long, long rows of little semi-detached houses—the numbers in Ellesmere Road run to 212 and ours is 191—as much alike as council houses and generally uglier. The stucco front, the creosoted gate, the privet hedge, the green front door. The Laurels, the Myrtles, the Hawthorns, Mon Abri, Mon Repos, Belle Vue. At perhaps one house in fifty some anti-social type who’ll probably end in the workhouse has painted his front door blue instead of green.

That sticky feeling round my neck had put me into a demoralized kind of mood. It’s curious how it gets you down to have a sticky neck. It seems to take all the bounce out of you, like when you suddenly discover in a public place that the sole of one of your shoes is coming off. I had no illusions about myself that morning. It was almost as if I could stand at a distance and watch myself coming down the road, with my fat, red face and my false teeth and my vulgar clothes. A chap like me is incapable of looking like a gentleman. Even if you saw me at two hundred yards’ distance you’d know immediately—not, perhaps, that I was in the insurance business, but that I was some kind of tout or salesman. The clothes I was wearing were practically the uniform of the tribe. Grey herring-bone suit, a bit the worse for wear, blue overcoat costing fifty shillings, bowler hat, and no gloves. And I’ve got the look that’s peculiar to people who sell things on commission, a kind of coarse, brazen look. At my best moments, when I’ve got a new suit or when I’m smoking a cigar, I might pass for a bookie or a publican, and when things are very bad I might be touting vacuum cleaners, but at ordinary times you’d place me correctly. ‘Five to ten quid a week’, you’d say as soon as you saw me. Economically and socially I’m about at the average level of Ellesmere Road.

I had the street pretty much to myself. The men had bunked to catch the 8.21 and the women were fiddling with the gas-stoves. When you’ve time to look about you, and when you happen to be in the right mood, it’s a thing that makes you laugh inside to walk down these streets in the inner-outer suburbs and to think of the lives that go on there. Because, after all, what is a road like Ellesmere Road? Just a prison with the cells all in a row. A line of semidetached torture-chambers where the poor little five-to-ten-pound-a-weekers quake and shiver, every one of them with the boss twisting his tail and his wife riding him like the nightmare and the kids sucking his blood like leeches. There’s a lot of rot talked about the sufferings of the working class. I’m not so sorry for the proles myself. Did you ever know a navvy who lay awake thinking about the sack? The prole suffers physically, but he’s a free man when he isn’t working. But in every one of those little stucco boxes there’s some poor bastard who’s never free except when he’s fast asleep and dreaming that he’s got the boss down the bottom of a well and is bunging lumps of coal at him.

Of course, the basic trouble with people like us, I said to myself, is that we all imagine we’ve got something to lose. To begin with, nine-tenths of the people in Ellesmere Road are under the impression that they own their houses. Ellesmere Road, and the whole quarter surrounding it, until you get to the High Street, is part of a huge racket called the Hesperides Estate, the property of the Cheerful Credit Building Society. Building societies are probably the cleverest racket of modern times. My own line, insurance, is a swindle, I admit, but it’s an open swindle with the cards on the table. But the beauty of the building society swindles is that your victims think you’re doing them a kindness. You wallop them, and they lick your hand. I sometimes think I’d like to have the Hesperides Estate surmounted by an enormous statue to the god of building societies. It would be a queer sort of god. Among other things it would be bisexual. The top half would be a managing director and the bottom half would be a wife in the family way. In one hand it would carry an enormous key—the key of the workhouse, of course—and in the other—what do they call those things like French horns with presents coming out of them?—a cornucopia, out of which would be pouring portable radios, life-insurance policies, false teeth, aspirins, French letters, and concrete garden rollers.

As a matter of fact, in Ellesmere Road we don’t own our houses, even when we’ve finished paying for them. They’re not freehold, only leasehold. They’re priced at five-fifty, payable over a period of sixteen years, and they’re a class of house, which, if you bought them for cash down, would cost round about three-eighty. That represents a profit of a hundred and seventy for the Cheerful Credit, but needless to say that Cheerful Credit makes a lot more out of it than that. Three-eighty includes the builder’s profit, but the Cheerful Credit, under the name of Wilson & Bloom, builds the houses itself and scoops the builder’s profit. All it has to pay for is the materials. But it also scoops the profit on the materials, because under the name of Brookes & Scatterby it sells itself the bricks, tiles, doors, window-frames, sand, cement, and, I think, glass. And it wouldn’t altogether surprise me to learn that under yet another alias it sells itself the timber to make the doors and window-frames. Also—and this was something which we really might have foreseen, though it gave us all a knock when we discovered it—the Cheerful Credit doesn’t always keep to its end of the bargain. When Ellesmere Road was built it gave on some open fields—nothing very wonderful, but good for the kids to play in—known as Platt’s Meadows. There was nothing in black and white, but it had always been understood that Platt’s Meadows weren’t to be built on. However, West Bletchley was a growing suburb, Rothwell’s jam factory had opened in ’28 and the Anglo-American All-Steel Bicycle factory started in ’33, and the population was increasing and rents were going up. I’ve never seen Sir Herbert Crum or any other of the big noises of the Cheerful Credit in the flesh, but in my mind’s eye I could see their mouths watering. Suddenly the builders arrived and houses began to go up on Platt’s Meadows. There was a howl of agony from the Hesperides, and a tenants’ defence association was set up. No use! Crum’s lawyers had knocked the stuffing out of us in five minutes, and Platt’s Meadows were built over. But the really subtle swindle, the one that makes me feel old Crum deserved his baronetcy, is the mental one. Merely because of the illusion that we own our houses and have what’s called ‘a stake in the country’, we poor saps in the Hesperides, and in all such places, are turned into Crum’s devoted slaves for ever. We’re all respectable householders—that’s to say Tories, yes-men, and bumsuckers. Daren’t kill the goose that lays the gilded eggs! And the fact that actually we aren’t householders, that we’re all in the middle of paying for our houses and eaten up with the ghastly fear that something might happen before we’ve made the last payment, merely increases the effect. We’re all bought, and what’s more we’re bought with our own money. Every one of those poor downtrodden bastards, sweating his guts out to pay twice the proper price for a brick doll’s house that’s called Belle Vue because there’s no view and the bell doesn’t ring—every one of those poor suckers would die on the field of battle to save his country from Bolshevism.

I turned down Walpole Road and got into the High Street. There’s a train to London at 10.14. I was just passing the Sixpenny Bazaar when I remembered the mental note I’d made that morning to buy a packet of razor-blades. When I got to the soap counter the floor-manager, or whatever his proper title is, was cursing the girl in charge there. Generally there aren’t many people in the Sixpenny at that hour of the morning. Sometimes if you go in just after opening-time you see all the girls lined up in a row and given their morning curse, just to get them into trim for the day. They say these big chain-stores have chaps with special powers of sarcasm and abuse who are sent from branch to branch to ginger the girls up. The floor-manager was an ugly little devil, under-sized, with very square shoulders and a spiky grey moustache. He’d just pounced on her about something, some mistake in the change evidently, and was going for her with a voice like a circular saw.

‘Ho, no! Course you couldn’t count it! Course you couldn’t. Too much trouble, that’d be. Ho, no!’

Before I could stop myself I’d caught the girl’s eye. It wasn’t so nice for her to have a fat middle-aged bloke with a red face looking on while she took her cursing. I turned away as quickly as I could and pretended to be interested in some stuff at the next counter, curtain rings or something. He was on to her again. He was one of those people who turn away and then suddenly dart back at you, like a dragon-fly.

Course you couldn’t count it! Doesn’t matter to you if we’re two bob out. Doesn’t matter at all. What’s two bob to you? Couldn’t ask you to go to the trouble of counting it properly. Ho, no! Nothing matters ’ere ’cept your convenience. You don’t think about others, do you?’

This went on for about five minutes in a voice you could hear half across the shop. He kept turning away to make her think he’d finished with her and then darting back to have another go. As I edged a bit farther off I had a glance at them. The girl was a kid about eighteen, rather fat, with a sort of moony face, the kind that would never get the change right anyway. She’d turned pale pink and she was wriggling, actually wriggling with pain. It was just the same as if he’d been cutting into her with a whip. The girls at the other counters were pretending not to hear. He was an ugly, stiff-built little devil, the sort of cock-sparrow type of man that sticks his chest out and puts his hands under his coattails—the type that’d be a sergeant-major only they aren’t tall enough. Do you notice how often they have under-sized men for these bullying jobs? He was sticking his face, moustaches and all, almost into hers so as to scream at her better. And the girl all pink and wriggling.

Finally he decided that he’d said enough and strutted off like an admiral on the quarter-deck, and I came up to the counter for my razor-blades. He knew I’d heard every word, and so did she, and both of them knew I knew they knew. But the worst of it was that for my benefit she’d got to pretend that nothing had happened and put on the standoffish keep-your-distance attitude that a shopgirl’s supposed to keep up with male customers. Had to act the grown-up young lady half a minute after I’d seen her cursed like a skivvy! Her face was still pink and her hands were trembling. I asked her for penny blades and she started fumbling in the threepenny tray. Then the little devil of a floor-manager turned our way and for a moment both of us thought he was coming back to begin again. The girl flinched like a dog that sees the whip. But she was looking at me out of the corner of her eye. I could see that because I’d seen her cursed she hated me like the devil. Queer!

I cleared out with my razor-blades. Why do they stand it? I was thinking. Pure funk, of course. One back-answer and you get the sack. It’s the same everywhere. I thought of the lad that sometimes serves me at the chain-store grocery we deal at. A great hefty lump of twenty, with cheeks like roses and enormous fore-arms, ought to be working in a blacksmith’s shop. And there he is in his white jacket, bent double across the counter, rubbing his hands together with his ‘Yes, sir! Very true, sir! Pleasant weather for the time of the year, sir! What can I have the pleasure of getting you today, sir?’ practically asking you to kick his bum. Orders, of course. The customer is always right. The thing you can see in his face is mortal dread that you might report him for impertinence and get him sacked. Besides, how’s he to know you aren’t one of the narks the company sends round? Fear! We swim in it. It’s our element. Everyone that isn’t scared stiff of losing his job is scared stiff of war, or Fascism, or Communism, or something. Jews sweating when they think of Hitler. It crossed my mind that that little bastard with the spiky moustache was probably a damn sight more scared for his job than the girl was. Probably got a family to support. And perhaps, who knows, at home he’s meek and mild, grows cucumbers in the back garden, lets his wife sit on him and the kids pull his moustache. And by the same token you never read about a Spanish Inquisitor or one of these higher-ups in the Russian OGPU without being told that in private life he was such a good kind man, best of husbands and fathers, devoted to his tame canary, and so forth.

The girl at the soap counter was looking after me as I went out of the door. She’d have murdered me if she could. How she hated me because of what I’d seen! Much more than she hated the floor-manager.

Coming Up For Air    |    Part I, 3

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